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It's Travis' Turn: The problematic appeal of true crime

The following is an opinion column written by an Echo Press editorial staff member. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the Echo Press.

Our turn
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It started with Jack the Ripper. I was in middle school when I saw a report on his crimes on the evening news, and I was fascinated. Who was he? Why did he do it? Why did they never catch him? The questions were endless.

Over the years, I became interested in other morbid, often tragic stories of true crime: Leopold and Loeb, the Cleveland torso murderer, Dr. H. H. Holmes.

Eventually, I began doing my own research on lesser-known regional crimes. There was the family near Wakonda, S.D., whose house was burned down after they were shotgunned in their beds. There was the Women's Army Corps member who was killed in Sioux Falls in the early 1940s. There was the slow poisoning of a Nebraska man by his wife and one of his employees at the dawn of the 20th century.

It's only in the past few years that I've begun to think of this as wrong.

I'm not talking about the reporting of crime as a public service in newspapers and on television, but rather the problematic rise of true crime as entertainment.

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I'm certainly not alone in my interest — a quick Google search reveals almost 200 true crime podcasts sprung up over a period of only six years. There are hundreds of true crime books. There are hundreds more true crime documentaries and television programs.

However, most of these only exist because somebody was murdered.

What's worse, the majority of them offer only the most cursory of glimpses into the lives of the victims of those murders. Usually uttering something along the lines of, "Well-liked by friends and family," the programs then move on to what their fans see as the real meat of the story.

Instead of learning who the victims were as people, what they meant to their families and why the world is worse off without them in it, we usually get an overly graphic recounting of how they were killed. By contrast, the murderers' lives are portrayed to the utmost detail, with no fact too small to be included.

Their names are known by millions of people. Jeffrey Dahmer. Ted Bundy. John Wayne Gacy.

How many of those same people can name one of the victims?

My thinking on the subject was changed several years ago when I was reading, of all things, a comic book called "Eightball" by Daniel Clowes. In it was a one-page story about Leopold and Loeb, a subject which had long interested me. The last panel showed an old man sitting in a chair, and gave the age Bobby Franks — the pair's victim — would have been at the time of publication had he lived.

The story did something years of reading about the crime never had: It made me feel bad. I'm glad it did.

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It's impossible to guess how many true crime books have been written with murder as their main subject. Jack the Ripper alone has inspired more than 500 fictional and non-fictional accounts.

As far as I know, only one of them ("The Five" by Hallie Rubenhold) has been specifically about the victims. It was published three years ago, 130 years after the last murder.

I still have an interest in true crime. I can't help it. However, I can keep in mind that it isn't something to take lightly, like some idle pastime.

Murder, some of us need reminding, is not entertainment.

“It’s Our Turn” is a weekly column that rotates among members of the Echo Press editorial staff.

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The following is an opinion column written by an Echo Press editorial staff member. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the Echo Press.

Opinion by Travis Gulbrandson
Travis Gulbrandson covers several beats, including Osakis School Board and Osakis City Council, along with the Brandon-Evansville School Board. His focus will also be on crime and court news.
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